The University of Tennessee Health Science Center has been awarded $3.2 million from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to upgrade the equipment and infrastructure in the UTHSC Regional Biocontainment Laboratory (RBL) in Memphis to enhance the university’s research of infectious diseases, including COVID-19.

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Colleen Jonsson, Ph.D, Van Vleet Professor of Virology and director of the UTHSC Regional Biocontainment Laboratory, is the project director and principal investigator for the award that will fund improvements to the hardware and building automation system software and provide state-of-the-art equipment for basic research and preclinical studies for testing of new therapeutics and vaccines.

The RBL, a Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) lab, is among roughly a dozen across the country commissioned after 9/11 by the NIAID to study highly contagious pathogens in response to the threat of bioterrorism. It opened on the Memphis campus in 2009.

“This will bring advanced preclinical imaging equipment into our Level 3 area,” Dr. Jonsson said. “This will enhance and strengthen our ability to learn more about infectious diseases in real time, such as COVID-19.”

The RBL has played a key role in research related to the novel coronavirus. Jonsson has led teams of researchers sequencing the virus, working to determine possible antivirals to treat it, and developing COVID-19 diagnostic tools.

The RBL received live virus samples of the coronavirus in late February 2020. Jonsson and her team began testing the samples against compounds (small molecules) that could prove to be treatments. She collaborated with many regional and national scientists and laboratories, including Oak Ridge National Laboratory, identifying several existing drugs as possible therapeutics for the virus. That collaboration continues.

The RBL is also the site of UTHSC’s Center of Excellence in Encephalitic Alphavirus Therapeutics. In early 2019, Jonsson secured a $21 million National Institutes of Health grant to research antiviral treatments for deadly viruses that are spread to horses, and people, by infected mosquitoes.

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